Bast Takes a Walk
by Tom Howard
Bast, the catlike goddess, released the sun from the stables as she did every morning, wrapped her sunrise cloak around herself, and went for a walk through the world of man. Usually she was content to observe their struggles and victories as she walked unnoticed along the lush banks of the Nile, but today, she felt mischievous. She enjoyed testing the sons and daughters of man. If they performed well, she’d reward them. If not, they’d find her wrath unforgettable.
She came upon a small but beautiful valley hidden between two gentle peaks. Two rough cottages, one small and one large, huddled together at the intersection of a small stream and a dirt road.
The goddess saw a woman come out of one of the cottages, peer in her direction for a moment, and turn to stirring a large copper pot bubbling outside the door. As she approached, she saw the woman stirring wool in the hot dye. The goddess changed her appearance. She appeared to be a crone bent with age and carrying a bundle of twigs on her back. Her splendid cloak transformed into a tattered rag dragging in the dirt, and she limped and wheezed as she walked.
The woman at the cottage stood with her hands on her wide hips and a look of concern on her weather-beaten face as she watched Bast’s slow and arduous progress.
“A crust of bread for some kindling?” begged the crone, ignoring the stack of firewood behind the younger woman.
“You poor thing!” the woman exclaimed, sympathy and concern plain on her face. “I always need fresh kindling for these dying vats. I’m Mauv, the shepherd’s wife, and this cottage belongs to me and my husband. Please come inside for a slice of bread, Grandmother.”
Bast followed the shepherd’s wife into her small cottage, a single room with mud walls and a thatched roof. Two things dominated the room, a crackling fire-pit and a large loom. Mauv helped the beggar woman to a warm seat near the pit and cut her a fresh chunk of bread and a thick slice of cheese. “I just milked the goat, so there’s warm milk for you, too.”
“Bless you,” said the old woman, “but bread will be enough.”
“Nonsense,” said the bustling woman as she poured the milk. “You must be half frozen from the morning chill. My husband left for the city this morning, and I’ll never be able to eat all this alone.” Bast knew her hostess was stretching the truth. From the size of her portion, Bast knew Mauv’s generosity would result in some skimpy meals ahead.
“Your husband is away?” Bast asked, wanting to know more about her benefactor and savoring the taste of the simple bread and cheese.
Mauv planted herself on a stool in front of the loom and began to work. “Yes, he’s taken the sheep through the pass to the city to have them sheared. He’ll be gone several days.” She stopped work and frowned at the fire slowly dying in the rock-lined pit. “Are you warm enough? Is the bread too hard?”
Before the disguised goddess could reply, Mauv was off the stool and wrapping a heavy shawl around the old woman’s shoulders. “My gran was always cold,” she explained, “even when she was sitting by the fire.” In a moment, the weaver was back at her loom, passing the shuttle from side to side. Even from where she was sitting, Bast could see Mauv was creating a beautiful piece of dark green fabric from yarn dyed in the pot outside.
The old woman watched the weaver for a moment. “Isn’t there a village closer?” she asked after she finished the cheese and bread. “For shearing, I mean.”
“No,” said Mauv, “but the merchant who buys the wool and his shearers pay a good price.” She clipped bits of yarn and dropped them into a bag overflowing with other pieces of yarn and wool.
“Who’s the bag for?” Bast asked, knowing every piece of wool was precious to a weaver.
The woman grinned. “That one’s for the boy who lives down the lane. He was a shepherd, but he fell into a ravine while rescuing one of his sheep. It left him lame. He and his poor old mother had to sell their flock, and now he weaves and his mother rents a room to infrequent travelers. I give the boy my trimmings, and he creates some lovely patterns. That shawl you’re wearing is one of his.”
“They live across the road?” The goddess stroked the softness of the boy’s work, feeling the care and skill woven there.
“Yes. The old woman and her husband had a large family, but all the children have moved to the city after the father died. I guess raising sheep wasn’t for them. They’ve closed off most of the house. The boy weaves the wool and his mama works in her garden.”
The old woman looked at the beautiful weaving in the borrowed shawl. “This is a fine piece of work,” she said.
The younger woman smiled. “It’s a bit plain for my taste. Keep it if you like. It’ll keep you warm in your travels.”
“Oh, I couldn’t!”
“Please,” the woman said kindly, “you can bring me more kindling the next time you travel this way. And I could always use the company.”
The old woman smiled, revealing her toothless gaps. “You’re a good woman, Mauv, the shepherd’s wife. If you could have anything, what would repay your kindness?”
The weaver stopped working the loom and thought for a moment. “Well, if I could have anything, I imagine it would be more time with my husband. He’s always taking the sheep one place to graze, another to drink, and yet another to get sheared. I don’t see him for days sometimes. Maybe if he was home more, I’d make him some little shepherds and shepherdesses.”
The old woman nodded, treating the wish seriously.
The weaver laughed. “But my real wish is that you’ll stop again. It gets lonesome out here with just me and the neighbors. Now I have to stir that vat again, and when I come back, you can tell me where you’ve been on your travels.”
When the shepherd’s wife returned from attending the wool, the crone was gone. Mauv peered up and down the road but saw no sign of the beggar woman. She wondered how the visitor had gotten out of the cottage without her noticing, but just then the dye pot boiled over and she had other things to worry about.
* * *
Many miles away, Mauv’s weary husband stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow. The sheep took advantage of his pausing on the roadway to graze on nearby clumps of grass.
“‘Tis a fine flock you’ve got there,” said a white-haired woman with a water jug balanced on her shoulder. “I don’t remember when I’ve seen sheep with such dark wool. Are you on your way to market?”
“No, ma’am,” he replied. “I’m taking them to the city to be shorn. And if they’re half as hot as I am, they’ll be glad of it.”
The woman laughed and lowered her jug. “Here, have a drink of water. I’ve just been to the spring, and the water is good and cold.”
The shepherd helped himself while the woman watched his sheep with a puzzled look. “Are you telling this simple old woman you’re taking these sheep all the way to town to be shorn and all the way back when you’re finished?”
“Yes,” said the shepherd. “I’ll sell some of the wool there and bring the rest home for my wife to weave.”
The woman shook her head. “I may not be wise, but wouldn’t it be easier for the shearer to come to you rather than you and all the sheep going to the shearer?”
The shepherd thought about it for a moment. “It will cost me more wool for him to come to my village.”
“One bag maybe,” she said. “How many sheep will you lose on your trek? The fee of an extra bag of wool seems a bargain, even to a water-carrier like me.”
The poor man studied his sheep. “You’re right. I can’t think of a good reason why I should spend days - and possibly sheep - going to the city and back. I don’t know why I haven’t considered such an arrangement before.”
He smiled. “I’ll try it. I have a large flock, enough to make their trip worthwhile. I will return home immediately and send a message to the merchant with the offer of an extra bag if he comes to us instead of us going to him.” He turned to thank the woman, but she and her water jug were already gone.
* * *
Later that day, the wool merchant received a message from a passing trader about the shepherd, and he and one of his shearing crew left the city. The shearer was headed toward the shepherd’s pass, and the merchant was bound to oversee the loading of a ship on the nearby Nile.
“You should be back by tonight,” the merchant spoke to his worker, “Surely shearing one small flock will not take long. If it weren’t for the high quality black wool of his sheep, I wouldn’t be sending you today.”
The merchant’s man didn’t reply. He was staring at a lone figure coming slowly down the road toward them. The merchant turned to see an old woman stumbling along under a heavy weight. Without a glance, she staggered between them, a hefty burden at the end of a stout pole over her shoulder.
“Madame!” exclaimed the merchant, amazed at the sight at the end of her pole.
She turned, carefully keeping the large fish from touching the ground. “Sir?” she asked, as if carrying a giant fish was a common occurrence.
“Where did you get that magnificent fish?” asked the merchant. “Is it a creature from the Nile?”
“No, sir,” she replied, “it came from a lake near a small village on the other side of the pass. My brother caught so many I decided to sell this one at market.”
“And this is the largest of the ones he caught?” asked the shearer, not taking his eyes off the sparkling scales.
“Oh, no,” she said. “This was the smallest.”
The merchant licked his lips. “Would this small village be the same one that has a flock of black sheep?”
“The very same, sir. Now I must get this to market before it cooks in the midday sun.” Bast turned to struggle on through the city gates, a smile on her lips.
The merchant smiled at his man. “I think I shall go with you to the shearing on the other side of the pass after all. But first, I have to return home for some special equipment and maybe some of my fellow merchants. Let’s hurry before those idiots in the market discover that lake.”
* * *
In the meantime, things were happening over the pass, and Bast took the shape of a bird to quickly return to the field near Mauv’s cottage. The shepherd had gotten his sheep home but had them on the road again.
“Where are our young man and his travelling sheep headed now?” Bast asked. She was again the woman with the water jar.
He stopped and smiled. “Hello, good mother. Every time I see you, you are carrying water. Actually, I’m trying to get my sheep a cool drink, too. I’m taking them up the valley.”
The woman looked at the stream running through the village. “They can’t drink here?”
He followed her gaze and shook his head. “The water level is lower than the ground. If the sheep fall in, they drown. There’s a wide spot upstream where they can reach the water safely.”
“What about over there?” she said, pointing to a nearby field where the small stream cut through flat land before spilling over a rock wall. “It seems to me if the wall down there was plugged, this entire field would fill with water, and the town would get a nice lake with some fine fish, and you’d get a watering hole next door.”
The shepherd shook his head. “That’s a good idea. Who are you? Do you have family here?”
“Not yet,” she said with a laugh, “but I think I may be visiting godchildren here in the future. Is the task too great?”
“No,” he said. “Maybe if we make our own lake, we’ll have fish. I may go fishing since I won’t be leaving the valley every time my flock needs water.”
“Yes. You might even find time for other things,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
* * *
Back in the city, Bast, overloaded with a bolt of woven wool, knocked on the door of a large merchant’s house. The servant fetched the mistress of the house who was having lunch with several other wives.
“There has been some mistake,” the merchant’s wife told the peddler. “I didn’t ask for any samples–”
“I’m sorry,” said the old woman, holding up a bolt of exquisitely woven green wool. “Isn’t this the mayor’s house?”
Several of the other women looked over their hostess’s shoulder. The merchant’s wife asked, “The mayor’s wife is buying this cloth?”
“Oh, yes,” said the old woman, “it is the best in the land.”
“Such wonderful weaving,” said one of the women, examining the luxurious fabric the old woman held. “Where did you get it?”
“It’s from a small village over the pass. The weavers there sell their work at very reasonable prices.” The peddler looked around worriedly. “But don’t tell anyone. The mayor’s wife is keeping it a secret.”
The merchant’s wife exchanged glances with her friends. “This wouldn’t be the village where they have the black sheep and the large fish, is it? My husband and some friends are going there for some wool this very afternoon.”
“The very same,” said the peddler. “It’s a beautiful little village.”
The merchant’s wife smiled at her friends. “Thank you, old woman. The mayor’s house is at the end of the street. If you’ll excuse us, I must find my husband and tell him we will be joining him on his trek this afternoon. I hope they have a nice little inn there.”
“Oh yes,” said Bast with a smile. “Quite spacious, I’ve heard.”
* * *
The goddess had one more stop before her daily walk was finished. As she walked down the dusty road near the submerged field, she was pleased to see hungry fish leaping into the air.
The goddess looked over a rock wall at a stout woman digging aggressively at some weeds. “What a beautiful garden!” Bast exclaimed.
The gardener looked up and pushed the gray hair back out of her eyes. “Thank you. It gives me something to do while my son is working. That rattling loom gets loud sometimes.”
“I have often thought that when my friend Mauv is working,” said Bast. She looked up at the large cottage. “Is this house yours?”
“Yes,” said the larger woman as she stood and stretched her back. “My son and I live here. Of course, we don’t use most of it. I keep a few rooms for peddlers and travelers.”
“My sister had a big house like that,” said Bast, “but it didn’t survive.”
“Survive? What happened to it?”
“Well, you see, she kept it all closed up, too, and the mold and rats destroyed it.”
“Really?” asked the worried gardener. “What should I do?”
“You must open all the windows and doors and let fresh air in,’ the stranger advised. “Put fresh hay in all the mattresses and sweep out all the cobwebs. Pretend you’re an innkeeper and there are lots of people coming to stay in your fine country establishment.”
“Fine country establishment, indeed,” said the gardener as she smiled and dusted off her hands. “Still, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt anything to air it out a bit. Did you say you were visiting the shepherd’s wife?”
“Not today,” Bast replied. “I saw her husband coming back from the lake a short time ago. I think she’s busy.”
“That man is never home in the afternoon! What could he be doing? And did you say a lake? We don’t have a…” Her words drifted into the empty air on the other side of the stone fence.
The goddess hurried to be home by sunset. The last time she’d left the sun out all night, both the gods and the mortals had been very upset, but that’s another story. And it has nothing to do with a famous little village known to this very day for its hospitality, high quality woven goods, excellent fishing, and the finest shepherds and shepherdesses in the land.
* * *
Tom Howard is a science fiction and fantasy short story writer who lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. He thanks his four children for his inspiration and the Central Arkansas Speculative Fiction Writers' Group for their support.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories? Various places. My children give me lots of story ideas. This story idea came from the traditional "gods walking among men" trope which I've always wanted to play with.
What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story? To create a believable world, even if it is made up.
What do you think is the attraction of the fantasy genre? Infinite possibilities.